If the Buffalo Bills are to end a 14-year playoff drought this season, it appears they will have to do so without one of their defensive centerpieces.
Bills GM Doug Whaley announced via a statement Tuesday night that linebacker Kiko Alonso may have suffered a "significant" knee injury while working out in Oregon. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that Alonso has torn his ACL, effectively ending his 2014 campaign before it begins.
That would be a jarring blow for the Bills, to say the least. A 2013 second-round draft pick, Alonso played every snap on defense last season, recording 159 tackles and picking off four passes. Those accomplishments came under former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who left to take the head coaching job in Cleveland. His replacement, Jim Schwartz, planned to move Alonso to the weak side of his 4-3 scheme. DeAndre Levy thrived in a similar role for Schwartz's Lions last season.
Removing Alonso from the depth chart now would leave the Buffalo staff scrambling, a mere 33 days before the team opens the NFL's exhibition slate in the Hall of Fame Game against the Giants.
Any bright side for the Bills at all (and it is a stretch) comes from the depth they were able to add this offseason. On top of returning players like 2012 draft pick Nigel Bradham, Manny Lawson and Jerry Hughes, the Bills signed ex-Patriot Brandon Spikes and former Giant Keith Rivers, plus used a third-round pick in this year's draft on Preston Brown.
Spikes is all but locked into the MLB spot if Schwartz sticks with his 4-3 plans, but any of the other options could also be in play. Most intriguing of the bunch? Brown, an aggressive and physical player who might have the skill set to at least help fill the void left by the Alonso injury. Levy finished the 2013 season with 115 tackles, six interceptions and 15 pass breakups as Schwartz and his former Detroit staff turned him loose to chase the ball. Brown may not be able to match those numbers if thrust into a full-time role, but he does have three-down potential if he can shore up his coverage game.
Schwartz may also adopt a more multiple-front defense than what he employed in Detroit, with Lawson, Hughes and Mario Williams providing him a great deal of flexibility off the edge.
Alas, all of these plans — including scouring a thinned-out free-agent market — merely are an attempt to make the best of a bad situation. Alonso may not yet stand as an irreplaceable piece on Buffalo's roster, but he was close to attaining that status.
The injury is doubly painful for Buffalo because it comes just weeks after the franchise's aggressive move up the draft board for WR Sammy Watkins. That move was made at the expense of the Bills' 2015 first-round pick, and with an immediate push for the playoffs in mind. Publicly, those aims will not change in light of Alonso's injury, but clearly that development hinders the progress Buffalo believed it was making.
The pressure now falls on head coach Doug Marrone, GM Whaley and perhaps most specifically on Schwartz to prevent this July 1 hit from derailing the entire season. The competition for Alonso's open starting spot should be ferocious once training camp begins later this month.
Alonso's eventual fill-in may take that role in name only, however. Fully replacing Alonso on the field could be beyond the abilities of those left behind.